A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen

Overview

Brings to life a passionate poet-turned-musician and what compels him and his work.
Why is it that Leonard Cohen receives the sort of reverence we reserve for a precious few living artists? Why are his songs, three or four decades after their original release, suddenly gracing the charts, blockbuster movie sound tracks, and television singing competitions? And why is it that while most of his contemporaries are either long dead or engaged in ...
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A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen

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Overview

Brings to life a passionate poet-turned-musician and what compels him and his work.
Why is it that Leonard Cohen receives the sort of reverence we reserve for a precious few living artists? Why are his songs, three or four decades after their original release, suddenly gracing the charts, blockbuster movie sound tracks, and television singing competitions? And why is it that while most of his contemporaries are either long dead or engaged in uninspired nostalgia tours, Cohen is at the peak of his powers and popularity?
These are the questions at the heart of A Broken Hallelujah, a meditation on the singer, his music, and the ideas and beliefs at its core. Granted extraordinary access to Cohen’s personal papers, Liel Leibovitz examines the intricacies of the man whose performing career began with a crippling bout of stage fright, yet who, only a few years later, tamed a rowdy crowd on the Isle of Wight, preventing further violence; the artist who had gone from a successful world tour and a movie star girlfriend to a long residency in a remote Zen retreat; and the rare spiritual seeker for whom the principles of traditional Judaism, the tenets of Zen Buddhism, and the iconography of Christianity all align. The portrait that emerges is that of an artist attuned to notions of justice, lust, longing, loneliness, and redemption, and possessing the sort of voice and vision commonly reserved only for the prophets.More than just an account of Cohen’s life, A Broken Hallelujah is an intimate look at the artist that is as emotionally astute as it is philosophically observant. Delving into the sources and meaning of Cohen’s work, Leibovitz beautifully illuminates what Cohen is telling us and why we listen so intensely.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
04/14/2014
Fact and fandom blend together in this brief biography of Leonard Cohen, the unlikely elder statesman of rock and roll who began his career as one of Canada's leading poets. This is in part due to the self-mythologizing persona of the depressive, largely enigmatic singer, but also explains the Leibovitz's inconsistent tone. There are long, slow stretches of scholarly analysis concerning Cohen's place in Canadian literature and the relationship between his frequently morose lyrics and Jewish theology. Liebovitz isn't alone in praising Cohen's demanding lyrics, but some sections appear less biographical and more an insistent attempt to explain Cohen's status as "a connoisseur's choice," as opposed to a mainstream pop music icon. On "Suzanne" and "Sisters of Mercy," Leibovitz writes that they are a pair of "tightly knit creations, almost too perfect to live in this world." Still, Leibovitz manages a graceful celebration of Cohen's late-in-life renaissance, where his artistry and self-consciousness forged the iconic "Hallelujah," recorded in 1984, after 10 years' tormented labor. This vivid account of the stage-shy musician struggles to quell the author's admiration for Cohen, but succeeds in introducing this interesting, sometimes elusive life in song. (Apr.)
Marc Dolan
“In A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, Liel Leibovitz neatly limns the spiritual quest that underpins most of Cohen’s work, from Montreal to Tel Aviv and beyond. Less about Suzanne than ‘Suzanne,’ Leibovitz’s book highlights the novelist behind the songwriter, the poet behind the novelist, and the would-be prophet looming over them all.”
Alan W. Petrucelli - Examiner
“This is a wise book, and it asks poignant and incisive questions… The time is right for an elegant examination of the man’s work: his passions, his fears, his poetry, his anger, his loneliness, his redemption. The time is right for Leibovitz’s A Broken Hallelujah.”
Naomi Tropp - Jewish Book Council
“Absolutely outstanding.”
Library Journal
11/01/2013
Leibovitz tracks Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen's career from classics like the late-Sixties "Suzanne" to the January 2012 album Old Ideas, his highest-charting release in America, to explain why Cohen is still big.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-03-06
A slightly different look at rock royalty. Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is one of rock's most polarizing figures. Those who love him do so rabidly and will soak up every morsel of music (or prose or poetry) that the baritone-voiced artist releases. One can assume that's also the case with biographies, since less than two years after Sylvie Simmons' phenomenal I'm Your Man was published, here comes another study of the revered Canadian troubadour. Though Tablet writer Leibovitz (co-author: Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization, 2011, etc.) doesn't add much new material to the Cohen biographical canon, his approach is certainly different than that of Simmons; it's considerably more academic. Religion was (and is) among Cohen's pet topics about which to write, and Leibovitz follows suit, at times even quoting the Bible to illuminate a concept. In one instance, he pulls a line from the book of Romans in a discussion about the Doors, noting, "The New and Old Testaments alike are books of waiting; the humans who populate them speak of salvation and cataclysm, but more than anything they linger in anticipation for God to act." That sort of academic verbiage permeates the discussions of Cohen's relationship with Judaica. On the plus side, Leibovitz's research and sources are impeccable, and there are plenty of good anecdotes to lighten up what could have been a dry study of this important performer. In an account of a 2008 performance, Leibovitz writes: "In true Zen fashion, it turned out that all he needed to do to let his songs state their case was nothing but accept Lorca's definition of duende and allow the tightly closed flowers of his spare arrangements bloom into a thousand petals." It's a tall order to follow up what is, in effect, a definitive work, but Leibovitz delivers a different sort of biography that Cohen fanatics should appreciate.
Washington Post
“Lively, erudite and affecting. . . . Leibovitz makes a convincing case that Cohen has claimed his rightful place within the prophetic tradition that inspired him all along.”
David Yaffe - Christian Science Monitor
“A spiritual odyssey. . . . Thoughtful, ruminative . . . learned, eloquent
. . . artful and precise.”
Ruth Rosen - Truthdig
“An elegant, beautifully crafted book that Cohen's fans will instinctively understand.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

"This is not a biography of Leonard Cohen." This is the opening sentence of Liel Leibovitz's thoughtful, ruminative A Broken Hallelujah: Rock 'n' Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen. A book that promises the "Life of Leonard Cohen" in its subtitle might be sending mixed messages. One can assume that Leibovitz wants to put a little distance between himself and previous writers who did not eschew the title of biographer. English professor Ira Nadel interviewed Cohen and many of those around him for his Various Positions; Sylvie Simmons gave Cohen the full-on life-in-showbiz treatment in I'm Your Man, where she had access to nearly everyone, but did not know exactly what to ask. In distinguishing himself from these predecessors, he lets us know that his book will have a depth worthy of his subject. Leibovitz's book is among nine Cohen books to be published in 2014, the year of Cohen's eightieth birthday. So what word is more suited than biography? Philosophical tract? Poetic meditation? Spiritual odyssey? Lyric essay? All of these might apply — not unlike his subject, Leibovitz is inclined to aim for lofty realms in which mere information seems a small affair.

Since the Nadel and Simmons books, Cohen, who was forced to tour after a manager robbed him blind, saw his stock rise like never before. He was filling sports arenas and hearing covers of "Hallelujah" crop up all over the place, even on American Idol. Even as he was constantly onstage and in creative overdrive in the studio, he also suddenly became conspicuously unavailable. On Old Ideas, Cohen plays with this notion, claiming to be inaccessible even to himself: "I'd love to speak with Leonard / He's a sportsman and a shepard / He's a lazy bastard living in a suit." Cohen is joking of course, something he does more often than you would know in this learned, eloquent, and rather maudlin tome. Cohen has been on the road since 2008, and between sets he hops across the stage, with a delirious smile on his face. It's a long way from The New Yorker's 1993 description of him as the "Prince of Bummers."

But it is the Prince of Bummers who dominates Leibovitz's's book, and we are given evidence for why he was so anointed. He has been a man who appears to have been, as the man himself once put it, sentenced to death by the blues. We follow Cohen's despair, losing his father at the age of nine, living off his family fortune as a poet in Montreal, New York, and Greece. Cohen has said that, like many young men, he wrote poetry to attract women, and when that didn't work, he appealed to God. Really, in the tradition of John Donne, he was sometimes doing both in the same place, as in "Hallelujah," his most celebrated song. While Leibovitz is artful and precise in his descriptions — the best of which is a stunning, blow-by-blow account of Cohen's appearance at the tumultuous Isle of Wight festival in 1970 — the Cohen of this book is somewhat joyless. So we get descriptions of his initial discomfort in the recording studio, and of the obtuse reviews of his debut, The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967). We get Cohen having a series of nervous breakdowns onstage and backstage; we learn that Suzanne Elrod (not the Suzanne of the song) waged a custody battle for their children without witnessing him exhibit any joy as a father. His relationships with various women end, but we never see the ebullience of their beginning.

What we don't get is a sense of the triumph of an album that is one of the most astonishing debuts in the age of the LP, stuffed with masterpieces like "Suzanne," "Master Song," and "The Stranger Song," among many others. Cohen may have been struck with self- doubt during the entire process, but for so many listeners, the album is a gift that keeps on giving. Bob Dylan was influenced by poetry (among many other things), and Jim Morrison (who is taken far too seriously in this book) had delusions of his own poetic stature, but it is Cohen, a fully formed poet — who had published two volumes of poetry and a novel before he wrote his first song — who combines high poetry with pop songwriting like no one else.

Such triumph amid despair should be at least intermittently satisfying, if not for the neurotic and self-abasing Cohen, then at least for his non-biographer. And Leibovitz offers windows to such wider horizons in many places in this book, particularly in his consideration of Cohen's Jewishness and embrace of Zen Buddhism. If you look deeply not just at Cohen but at what he read, whom he knew, and how he became the artist he became, there's plenty beyond the gloom. He gives it to all of us in the songs. A life of spiritual quest is bound for disappointment; Cohen at eighty, is still writing, recording, and performing, but more reluctant to appear than ever. His exegetes have plenty of material on their hands, brimming with beauty and truth and still proliferating. There could never be a perfect account of the life of a man who is wise enough to eschew perfection itself, as he put it when he was around sixty: "Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in."

David Yaffe, a professor of English at Syracuse, is the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton). His next book, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, will be published by Yale University Press in May 2015.

Reviewer: David Yaffe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393082050
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/14/2014
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 175,506
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet magazine and teaches at New York University. He is the coauthor of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples. He lives in New York City.
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